Friday, 30 September 2011

Blog Tour: VIII by Harriet Castor

Today I am pleased to be part of the blog tour for VIII by Harriet Castor. The other tour participants are as follows, so make sure you check any you might have missed:

(Click to embiggen!)

This is the blurb/info as lifted from Amazon UK - VIII is published on 1st October 2011!

VIII is the story of Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family's violent past and, once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII. The Tudors have always captured the popular imagination, but in VIII, Henry is presented fresh for a new generation. H M Castor does for Henry what Hilary Mantel did for Thomas Cromwell - VIII is Wolf Hall for the teen and crossover market. The contemporary, original writing style will have broad appeal and VIII brings the tension of a psychological thriller and the eeriness of a ghost story to historical fiction.

Finally, a very warm welcome to Harriet...

Writing my new book VIII, a YA novel told through the eyes of Henry VIII, took a huge amount of research. I’m not complaining – I loved every bit of it. But today I wanted to tell you a little about some of the more… well, unusual aspects of the research process.

You’d expect me to have read great tomes on Tudor history, to have studied documents, visited palaces and consulted experts on everything from costumes to archery techniques, wouldn’t you? Yes, you’d be right.

But how about my endless obsessive watching of Elton John videos (or rather, two in particular)? How about my mining of Youtube for clips of Robert Downey Jr and John Malkovich? How about studying a huge in-depth biography of Elvis Presley?

No, I’m not mad. Don’t start backing away. Look, I’m a trained historian. Cambridge University, BA, First Class – honest! Let me rummage for my certificate…

You see, I wanted to steep myself in the detail of research, the known facts, the contemporary maps, the historians’ theories, the politics, the policies – all that. But I needed to find the emotional reality of Henry’s story too. This, for me, is a very different process. Because although historical research enables you to make the past vivid and present to yourself, at the same time it highlights the differences between the past and your own world. This is, of course, very necessary – you need to be aware of these differences, work with them, dig into them for insights. But, but. At the same time, because I was writing VIII in the first person, speaking in Henry’s voice, I needed to forget those differences and bring Henry closer… I needed to become him. And above all, I needed to get that Holbein image – of Henry standing arms akimbo, bearded and jewelled – out of my head. I could not inhabit an icon. I had to make Henry a human being.

Take, if you can, a couple of minutes to watch the video below. It’s a fantastic film made by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood of Robert Downey Jr lip-synching to Elton John’s song I Want Love. Downey is alone in palatial surroundings; to me the film speaks viscerally, immediately, of the loneliness of power. And of how easily it can push you into strange states of mind. Downey – or Henry, as he was to me when I was writing VIII – looks hard yet vulnerable, cold yet emotional… and dangerous. Here’s the link:

Completely by chance, another video I found hugely useful was also an Elton John one – here it’s Justin Timberlake doing the lip-synching, to This Train Don’t Stop. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the isolation and disconnection of the constantly accompanied ‘star’ (as Henry was in his own day). How, it makes me ask, can such a person remain emotionally undamaged? What madness must it be to live in that situation and have no one (pretty much) to check you, to have life-and-death power over everyone around you? Surely that sort of power must be a hellish, lonely trap?

When Henry was young he was handsome, charismatic, ridiculously talented. Constantly surrounded by a gang of male friends and hangers-on. Yet, inside, he was in many respects child-like and insecure. Here, Peter Guralnick’s monumental and brilliant 2-volume biography of Elvis came in. Of course Elvis didn’t develop into the monster that Henry became – but, in a radically different time and place, he shared so many of Henry’s natural advantages, and he did manifestly fail to cope with his power and success. How could his story not be relevant to my study of Henry?

John Malkovich’s meltdown in the Coen brothers’ film Burn After Reading put flesh, for me, on Henry’s rage, while a particular scene with Robert Downey Jr and Nicole Kidman in the film Fur epitomised one of Henry’s relationships. Another scene with Robert Downey (him again! My casting for Henry, you see) in The Singing Detective conjured Henry’s grief – these were visual, emotional talismans that I came back to time and time again as I was writing.

The real creative alchemy happens inside the writer, of course. It’s no use trying to stitch together moments from other works – and I don’t in any way mean to suggest that that’s what I was doing. These film and video talismans inspired me as a piece of old glass or a walk by the sea or a painting might inspire… and I have no notion whether anyone else can see, in what I watched, what they signified for me. Perhaps it’s too deeply personal. But I hope, in reading VIII, that you might appreciate the results.
Twitter: @HMCastor

Thanks so much for stopping by, Harriet!

Getting Away With It by Julie Cohen

After years of misbehaving in the quaint country village where she grew up with her identical twin sister Lee, Liza escaped to LA for a thrilling life as a stunt woman. But when her job brings her a little too close to death for comfort, Liza has to go back to the one place she couldn’t wait to get away from—home.

Only, when Liza arrives she discovers that her seemingly perfect sister has run off, leaving behind their difficult, ailing mother, a family ice-cream business that’s frozen in time and a dangerously attractive boyfriend. And what’s more, everyone thinks Liza is Lee. This is Liza’s one chance to see how it feels to be the good twin. She might be getting away with it, but there’s no getting away from facing up to who she really is…

This seems like such a frivolous novel to begin with - the very girly front cover, the identity swap of the twin sisters at the centre of the novel, the stuntwoman job of Liza - that I felt as though it would be a throwaway book; one of those you read and then instantly forget. Getting Away With It is far from this - in fact, I think it will prove to be pretty unforgettable.

Cohen does incredibly well because at the start of the novel I really didn't take to Liza at all - she was selfish, prickly, arrogant and generally horrendous to everyone she comes into contact with. Lee, on the other hand, is sweet and vulnerable and anxious to please - I found her to be a little bit like a doormat in the way she allowed people to treat her. Both sisters were clearly trapped in places that they didn't want to be, and the absolute joy of this novel is watching them develop and change and open their wings. Liza's journey is by far the most satisfying - her growth as a character really is brilliant - but it was also lovely seeing Lee start to take charge of her life.

Getting Away With It also contains some incredibly touching moments. Liza and Lee's mother has Alzheimer's, and her change in personality and her confusion and impatience with her disease caused me to choke up a few times. This ensures that the novel never feels frivolous.

Add to this the fact that Cohen has done her work concerning twins - she emphasises a number of times that, no matter the connection between twins, they are always two whole and unique people rather than two halves of the same whole. I absolutely love this, since I imagine that often twins must become very tired of being compared to each other and being treated in the same manner.

The only part of the novel that made me feel a little uncomfortable was the Will situation. Will is the aristocratic boyfriend of Lee at the start of the novel, and I felt a little bit odd that he and Liza strike sparks, especially considering he has already slept with Lee. Having said that, Cohen does write a very, very good sex scene!

Getting Away With It is begging to be made into a movie - it's written beautifully, and I can easily imagine a film about Liza and Lee. I've even entertained myself wondering who could possibly play the twins!

I absolutely loved Getting Away With It. It was a long luxurious novel with plentiful character development and truly lovely writing. In the future I will be reading any of Cohen's output. She is that rare creature - someone who can write a novel that becomes more than just a particular genre; who writes a book that should be tried by anyone. Don't be put off by the girly colour; this is not just a chick lit novel, it is a damn good yarn. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words?

I posted the following cover artwork on Twitter and asked people what genre they believed it belonged to:

The general consensus was 'crime' or 'thriller' and I confess that this was my first thought on seeing the cover.

I have, however, read this novel in an embryonic stage (submitted to Angry Robot Open Door Month, before being signed by Jo Fletcher Books - it's excellent!) and I would say it is distinctly horror.

Now, cover artwork is often a little bit of a minefield, in terms of getting it right - and here it seems as though Jo Fletcher Books have chosen to go with artwork that plays down the horror angle. Is this because horror really doesn't sell?

Or, on the other hand, are they trying to tap into some crossover appeal and beckon in the crime/thriller readers? In this case, they are going head to head with some real heavyweights and so A Cold Season might find itself disregarded.

I did find it very interesting to see people identify a whole genre by a piece of cover art i.e. crime. I worry, though, that the wrong readers will therefore pick up this novel. Honestly? I think that Alison Littlewood has been done a disservice with this generic cover and I would hope that people look beyond that to the novel inside.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages - not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out.

When one of the strangers - beautiful, haunted Akiva--fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor has received a great deal of pre-publication buzz - trailers, limited proofs and plenty of information. This often makes me a little concerned about whether the book can possibly live up to all my expectations. With the case of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I am pleased to say my expectations were absolutely surpassed - this is an exceptionally special book.

It tells the story of Karou, blue-haired artist living in Prague - ward of Brimstone, a chimaera who creates wishes in the world of Elsewhere. Karou has always felt as though she doesn't belong entirely in either world, and only comes to find out why when she meets akiva, one of the seraphim - and her mortal enemy.

From the very first page Taylor opens up a world of folklore and fairytale. The winter location of Prague feels 18th Century and very mystical - a perfect setting for the otherworldly Karou. She - with her tattoos and blue hair and artistic ability - is one of the strongest female protagonists I've seen in a YA novel for a while. She is strong yet vulnerable, talented, sardonic and brave.

Taylor's prose is exquisite. It is whimsical and delightful, playful and wistful by turn and kept me enthralled from first page to last. I just can't emphasise enough how beautiful it made this book to read.

The story feels a little like the weaving of a tapestry - thread after thread pulling together to create a glorious whole. I really enjoyed the unveiling of some of the mysteries - and I'm glad that some of them have been left to discover in the further two novels of the trilogy.

For me, one of the areas that most YA fails in is the way the romance develops and the manner in which the two protagonists fall in love - but here is was completely believable and organic, especially thanks to some of the reveals later in the story.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is something incredibly special. While watching it I felt the same way as I did when I watched Pan's Labyrinth. It's an Event and deserves the capitalisation. This really is not to be missed.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Guest Book Review: Ole from Weirdmage's Reviews takes a look at the Legends anthology

Ole from Weirdmage's Reviews lives in deepest darkest Norway, and reads an utterly obscene amount when he is not lurking on Twitter. He has become a great friend, and deigned to write a review for me. Settle in, guys, this one is an epic!


This anthology contains eleven stories from what was arguably the top fantasy series at the time it was published in 1998.

I’ve chosen to write a little review of every story in this anthology, including a paragraph about how it represents the series it is a part of. At the end there will be a short review/comment on the whole anthology.


This is a prequel to the first Dark Tower book, The Gunslinger.

Although unlike most of Stephen King’s writings, this still bears some of the hallmarks that make it distinctly a Stephen King story. Like many of King’s stories it is set in a post-apocalyptic world, but this is not our world - it is instead a world that mixes the fantasy and western genres.

The story itself reminded me a lot of H.P. Lovecraft. The reader knows all along that something is wrong, but we are seeing the events through the eyes of the main character, and are told it as he discovers it for himself.

If I had to classify this story into a SFF subgenre, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it horror.

King manages to put his own twist on several creatures that will seem very familiar to both fantasy and horror readers. It is a very good story and that it is mostly confined to one small location makes it stronger. The pace of the story is relatively slow, and there isn’t really much action, but for this story that is the strength. I’d go so far as to say that this is one of the better Stephen King short stories I have read.

Having read the first three books of King’s Dark Tower series I found this to be an almost perfect story. It is an interesting look at what Roland was up to before the events of The Gunslinger.

If you have yet to read anything of the Dark Tower series this is a good introduction. You get to know a bit about the series’ main character, and you are also given quite a good glimpse into the world that is the setting for the series.

NOTE: The two page introduction to the story contains spoilers for the Dark Tower books. If you don’t like spoilers, do yourself a favor and skip it.


Set in Lancre, this story stars the witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.

It’s basically a story about what happens when someone acts out of character and does things that are not expected of them. And anyone that has read the Witches series-within-a-series will understand, and perhaps even sympathize with the eerie feeling that the secondary characters have throughout this story.

It is a good standalone that shows us two of the most popular Discworld characters on their home turf.

There’s plenty that will make you laugh, or at least smile here. I think everyone will to some degree recognize some of the situation that Pratchett describes.

Pratchett shows that he can bring the same craft and imagination to a shorter story that he does to his novels. This is a great example of the master of humorous fantasy at his best.

For any fan of Pratchett’s Discworld books this story will probably be worth picking up the anthology for. If you have somehow managed to never read a Discworld book this would be a good place to start.


This story takes place over a generation before the events of the first book in the series, Wizard’s First Rule.

This is a bit hard for me to review because, having read the whole series, it is hard for me to really keep my feelings of this story separate from that. I’ve given it my best shot though, and I hope I have given this story a chance to stand on its own.

There’s quite a bit of Goodkind’s overwriting here. The story starts slowly mostly due to unnecessary descriptions that don’t really add anything to it, and I got a bit impatient for it to really get going. I can’t help but feel that this story will be somewhat confusing to anyone who is not familiar with the series, and that it does not really function as a standalone.

On the plus side there are a couple of twists towards the end of the story that are well handled, and that raises the quality of the story a little bit.

The first time I read this anthology, in 2002, it actually got me curious enough about the series to check it out. That is because there are some good ideas here and actually in the series itself too. Unfortunately Goodkind is not very good at handling his ideas, and his blatant preaching of right-wing politics and semi-fascist views on what is heroic tend to leave a slightly sick feeling in your stomach as you read his work.

This does showcase what you can expect from the first part of the Sword of Truth series, but I have to say that the series only gets worse as it progresses, and I can’t really suggest you start on the series unless you think this is one of the best stories you have ever read.


This story is quite different from the others in this anthology. Not only is it an alternative history story, but it is written in a close approximation of the style of fairy tales.

I actually found it quite hard to cope with the style and tone this story was written in; it was just too short for me to get used to it before it was finished.

The story follows many of the tropes you would expect from a fairy tale and the magic you find here has very little difference from what you usually find in folklore. The alternate history setting felt a bit wasted to me. It doesn’t really come into play except that it introduces a famous American, and gives a wholly different version of his legend. This was actually done in a very good fashion, so it might seem as if I am contradicting myself a bit here. But I still can’t let go of the feeling that the alternate history aspect could have been removed without it really affecting the story.

If you look at this story as a Young Adult, or perhaps Mid-Grade, fairy tale this is quite a good story despite the problems I had with getting into it. For fans of fairy tales, and those who have an interest in US history, I think this will be a good read.

Since I haven’t read any of The Tales of Alvin Maker books I can’t really comment on whether this story is a good representation of what to expect from the series. And as I didn’t really connect with the style of writing Card used here, I can’t say I feel very tempted to pick up the series in the future.


This story is set in the years after the novel Valentine Pontifex.

A murder at an archeological dig is the setting for this story starring the Pontifex Valentine. Although space travel exists in the Majipoor universe, and the different species here are aliens rather than fantasy races, it is a fantasy setting.

This is a very intriguing and varied story. One of the themes it tackles is reconciliation after a war between two different groups and the suspicions and prejudices that follow that.

As someone who has a stronger than average interest in archaeology the setting here is an immediate draw for me. Silverberg also manages to use the archaeological setting as more than just window-dressing, it is integral to the story as a whole.

The murder mystery part of the story is not very complex or original but I didn’t feel that this mattered much since what is really important here is the whole setting more than the story itself.

This should hit the right note for fans of crime, archaeology, and fantasy.

I have read the first Majipoor book, Lord Valentine’s Castle, and the story collection Majipoor Chronicles. This story makes for a good addition to those books, as well as a very good taste of what you can expect from the series. I feel like re-reading Lord Valentine’s Castle after reading this story.

NOTE: Both the introduction to the series, and the story itself contains spoilers for the Majipoor series.


This story starts out as what seems like a run-of-the-mill unrequited love-story, and with a male point of view character. After the first part it suddenly changes to the point of view of the women he was in love with, and he disappears completely from the narrative. What follows after that seems like a re-telling of Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites. However nothing really happens at all before the female main character saves the day without there being any real explanation as to how she managed to do this.

Dragonfly contains the beginning and ending of a standard “chosen one” fantasy tale, but it completely lacks the middle part of such a story. There is very little character building, no heroine’s journey and no discernible development of any power that is needed to fight evil. It is a bit like reading the chapter of The Lord of the Rings where Gandalf tells Frodo that the ring is the One Ring and then skipping ahead to Frodo and Sam exiting the cave on Mount Doom and congratulating themselves on a job well done –and that is all you get.

Added to the, in my opinion, extremely poor story you have a tendency from Le Guin to infodump and overwrite that made it a hard story to get through. I really wanted to skip ahead to the next story before I was halfway through this one. I couldn’t help but feel that the time I spent reading this story was a total waste.

About fifteen years ago I read the four Earthsea books in Norwegian. I don’t remember anything else about them than that I liked one of them and thought one of them was bad. I was actually planning to buy Wizard of Earthsea and see what I thought of it now. But after reading this story I have moved the Earthsea books to the bottom of my to-buy/read list, and I’m even a bit reluctant to start reading The Dispossessed by Le Guin, a book I have already bought because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.

For me this story couldn’t have failed more than it did, and my suggestion is to skip it if you read this anthology. I don’t think it is worth reading.


Told in the first person, this is the tale of Breda. It encompasses several different threads without feeling in any way like it tries to do too much.

Breda tells the events of her fifteenth year with the wisdom and hindsight of old age. The story is strengthened by giving us a quick recap of events prior to the story’s beginning, and although it is quite short it manages to build up a good background to what is happening.

The central love story, that binds together a story of exile and Breda’s stepfather’s search for an answer that is very important to him, is made all the much better for the analysis Breda gives as she narrates the story.

Williams’ writing is excellent here. Breda’s voice as a narrator is incredibly natural. He also manages to incorporate a surprising twist into a story that at its heart is very familiar.

It’s been years since I last read the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, and reading this I realize a re-read is long overdue. The story is a great addition to the world of an excellent fantasy trilogy.


This story of a roaming knight without a lord, a hedge knight, is set about one hundred years before the beginning of A Game of Thrones.

With the central stage for the story being a knightly tournament it reminded me very much at times of the two film adaptions I’ve seen of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and I wonder if either of these has served as an inspiration. If the tournament had been the only element to the story it wouldn’t have been very interesting as that part in itself is not really very original. But Martin has mixed in another element, and although this is not very original either the mix of the two makes for an interesting and entertaining tale.

Martin’s writing is very good and he manages to convey quite a lot about the life of hedge knights in general, and the main character Dunk in particular, in what is relatively speaking a few pages. This feels very focused and tightly written, something that makes it a very good story in my opinion.

Only having read the first volume in A Song of Ice and Fire, and that some years ago, I can’t really remember if the events told here have any bearing on, or are even mentioned, in the series. It is however a point that is not really relevant as this works perfectly as a standalone story. It also serves as a good introduction both to Martin’s writing style and the world in which it is set.

If you have ever wondered if you should start reading A Song of Ice and Fire this is a great place to start.


It’s refreshing to read a fantasy story about some of the “invisible” people who are a part of every world. This tale is about runners, messengers who run from place to place like a non-tech Internet, or perhaps more accurately a human Pony Express.

What I liked most about the story is that McCaffrey has chosen to not set it during some momentous event. It would be easy to tell a tale of a runner delivering a world-changing message against all odds. Instead we get the personal story of Penna, a young woman from a family of runners who is just starting out in her career.

There are a lot of details here of the life of a runner, and it is a good glimpse into a closed group of a society. McCaffrey manages to deliver the details without making the reader feel like they are having information dumped on them. It feels like an integral part of the story and adds to the overall feel of it.

I must say that this one of the stories I really enjoyed, perhaps mostly because it was so different from what you usually see in fantasy.

I’ve not read any of McCaffrey’s Pern novels, and don’t know much about the world. But this story did feel like it at least gave me some sense of how the society on Pern is set up. This one glimpse into the Pern series has made me curious about the series, and I now plan to try it out.


This standalone story is set during the events of the Riftwar Saga trilogy.

Central to this story is the wood boy, Dirk. As the name implies his job is to ensure that there is an adequate supply of firewood.

Actually I think this story would have worked well even if it was just a tale of daily life during enemy occupation, which it basically is. Feist has added an extra twist to the end of the story, however. This twist works very well, and separates the story from the normal “growing up in fantasyland tale” that we already have in McCaffrey’s tale. It is not a very happy tale, and that may make some readers feel let down by it.

I think the story is well written. It is short but it does tell a lot. Dirk is also a realist and quite an interesting person to get to know better. And I don’t think the story suffers from being read as a standalone.

There are some events from the Riftwar Saga mentioned here. And this story is a good indication to what you can expect if you choose to move on to Feist’s series.


This is a prequel to The Eye of the World, the first novel in the Wheel of Time series.

Here we get the story of how Moiraine and Lan meet. If you are not familiar with the Wheel of Time series, they are two of the main characters.

The story itself is a bit of a mess, many things are not explained and many of those that are get lost in Jordan’s tendency to over-describe inconsequential details. Trying to get a grip on what is important by looking at how much room they are given in the text will not be very helpful.

There are definitely some good ideas here, but as I said above they get lost in a lot of waffle. This is a shame, because by cutting out the unnecessary description there would have been more room to explore them.

This is what I would define as a true prequel. In the way that I don’t really see how you could make much sense of what is happening without being familiar with what is going to happen later. But it does give a good idea of what I found when I read The Eye of the World, the only Wheel of Time book I have read.

If you have read my The Eye of the World review on my blog you will know that I didn’t like it. So I will suggest this as your starting point with Jordan’s series. It may leave you a bit confused, but at least you don’t have to read that many pages to find out if it is something for you.

I do realise that the Wheel of Time has many fans. And if you are one of them, you may think you have already read this. But this version predates the New Spring novel and is much shorter. So you might want to get hold of this anthology to read this story as it was originally written


There’s really not much to say here. Although I did not think every story in this anthology was good, this really is essential on the bookshelf of any fan of fantasy. If you have already read and enjoyed any of these series you’ll like the addition that the short stories make to them. And if you have never read an epic fantasy series, and are curious to whether you should, this anthology lets you check out the worlds of eleven authors in one place.

Not the greatest anthology in fantasy publishing, but the most essential.

Guest Blog: Helen Hollick "Tossed Heads and Dropped Eyes"

Today I am thrilled to welcome Helen Hollick to my blog, with a guest post about how editing can still help the self-published author.

Tossed Heads and Dropped Eyes

I have recently had the mammoth task of re-editing all eight of my novels. It’s a task I don’t particularly want to do again in a hurry – especially as four of them I am having to re-edit twice over, and one I had to cut by 40,000 words.

Don’t get me wrong, I usually enjoy the editing process once that first draft is finally completed. The pleasure of turning the rough lump of rock into a polished diamond is rewarding, but believe me, one novel at a time is a bit more manageable.

The first re-edit was completed for Sourcebooks Inc in America. They scanned my files which then had to be re-checked because scanning tends to corrupt some of the text: rn becomes m for one thing. My big problem was that I had quite severe cataracts, then my elderly Mum was taken ill (she passed away in hospital) and I had somehow managed to tear a muscle in my thigh – which laid me up in bed for over a month in agony. All of which did not aid the editing process.

The originals were published several years ago and had dreadful typos I gave up counting after 360 in one book: words like ‘bread-stubbled chin’ (beard-stubbled) and Anglican Thegn instead of Anglian. I assure you that is not how I wrote the manuscript, they crept in at typesetting stage (in the days before electronic formatting!)

The one I had to dramatically cut was a challenge (A Hollow Crown – which is the UK title, the cut version is the US edition, The Forever Queen .)

At first I panicked. How could I possibly cut so much? But once I got stuck in I enjoyed the experience – deleting whole chapters of what was basically “off stage” story because, well to be honest, they weren’t needed. A paragraph was quite sufficient. I must have managed the job all right, because the novel recently edged into the USA Today best seller list.

So why two edits?

In February of this year, my UK small independent publisher went belly-up, Bust. Out of Print. Again being honest, it wasn’t a very good publishing house anyway – but they had taken my UK backlist after William Heinemann had decided to drop publication. At least I was still with a mainstream imprint. But then, if the books are rarely in print for various reasons, what use is being mainstream? Then the financial crunch came; I terminated the contract and found an assisted publishing company. I figured that to go “self published” I could ensure my books remained in print and I would have control over them. It’s a decision I have not regretted: SilverWood Books have produced some beautiful UK editions for me.

The problem? Said financial belly-up of previous UK publisher meant I could not have any returned files to me. All I had were the PDF US copies or old files. All final versions were either unobtainable or unusable.

So back to the editing process.

I cannot emphasise enough – especially to self published authors – how very important the editing process is. No author can spot their own errors.
Wer you awre that redng is prfctly possble evn whn wrds ar crzly mixd up or wthut vwls? The brain sorts the muddle out, which is why tpyos get missed.
But an editor is not necessary just for punctuation, spelling and grammatical errors. The professional eye can spot the technical bloopers; point out the “tell” not “show” bits. The head hopping between characters, too much author’s voice, the jolt of an anachronism. (It really doesn’t sound right to have “like a rabbit caught in the headlights” in a book set in the 12th century)

And then there are the disembodied limbs. I had no idea there were so many in my older work, written originally about 18 years ago, but going through the files my present editor, has picked them up.

‘Them’ being dropped feet, hands, heads and eyes.

The thing is, to say aloud ‘he fixed his eyes on her face’ is okay, but when reading it in print….? Now that my editor has pointed all this out, I get an immediate picture of a man plucking his eye out and sticking it on his girlfriend’s cheek. Or the eyes ‘ran round the room’ – quick, someone catch them! And a howler in one of my books: “He tossed his head towards the fire.” I’m laughing now, but with a bit of a red face too!

We all know what is meant by “he shrugged and dropped his hands to his side,” Or “put his hand into his pocket” – but once you are aware of how crazy these all sound, they leap out at you. How to get round it? She shrugged, he gazed at her, glanced around the room, stared at her eyes.... although not all are easy to overcome. Dropped his feet to the floor, for instance. Set his feet to the floor is just as bad, put his feet on the floor? Some things you just have to let go and write it - and tell yourself you are not going to get paranoid about disembodied limbs.

She put her hand in her pocket, dropped her feet to the floor and with her head hanging locked her eyes on the door and left.

Thanks so much Helen!

If you want to know more about Helen, then here are some links:

Main Website
Muse and Views Blog

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Guest Article: Adam Christopher on "Books Without Robots"

I don't think that I could have had two weeks' worth of guest posts without hosting Mr Adam Christopher - friend and debut author with Angry Robot in the very near future. I was one of the privileged beta readers of Empire State, and know how much of it has been influenced by great noir novels, so I invited Adam to talk about five of his favourite non-genre books.

I'm afraid to admit, my friends, that I am something of a genre snob. There, I've said it.

But, actually, it's not intentional. Far from it. It just happens that I like robots and monsters and spaceships and ghosts and superheroes and stuff like that, and there is more stuff like that than I’ll ever be able to read in a lifetime. It’s a hard life.

That’s not to say I’m averse to books without robots, or BWR, as we shall call them. While I’ve not yet read The Count of Monte Cristo, The Catcher in the Rye, or The Grapes of Wrath, they’re all sitting on my shelf, waiting. And, despite my protests, there are a whole bunch of BWR that have been a strong influence on me as a writer, and which I count among my favourite novels ever.

1. THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep was one of those real revelations for me. I have a feeling that I’d always meant to read Chandler, but only got around to it in 2009 when I grabbed a fancy – but cheap – leather-bound edition of The Big Sleep from a sinking bookshop to take with me on a long flight to San Francisco. I was aware that San Francisco was a haunt of another of the noir greats, Dashiell Hammett, so it seemed like an appropriate choice.

And I was flabbergasted. I still am. When I finished the book I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t the kind of novel that was taught in high school… but then remembering my own miserable English education which put me off a number of classics for life, perhaps it’s a good thing that noir isn’t taken as seriously as Shakespeare or Hardy. I still think the opening paragraph is the greatest thing written in English:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Don’t believe me? Read that passage out aloud.

From that book, the seeds of my own novel Empire State were sown… or at least a few noir-ish ideas began percolating through the vague notion of a story that I had already been toying with.


From the origins of detective noir to the latest modern iteration, McBride’s Frank Sinatra in a Blender is violent, gruesome, black and about as far away from The Big Sleep as you can get, while still clearly being its literary descendent. It’s noir and as hardboiled as you can get – McBride’s prose has the same rhythm and poetry of the originals of the genre, and, as with The Big Sleep, you know you’re in for something special right from the opening lines. Actually, you know you’re in for something special right from the title.

3. DOG ON IT by Spencer Quinn

Canine noir is so a genre – Dog On It is the first of a series of detective novels told from a dog’s point of view. I’m totally serious – Chet is our narrator, and while he may be unreliable (he’s a dog), he’s pretty observant and hugely entertaining. And reasonable forgetful. This book caught my eye thanks to a blurb from Stephen King, and just in time, as the fourth book in the series is out in October.

Seriously, it’s a detective novel, told by a dog. By. A. Dog. It’s also great.

4. The SHERLOCK HOLMES stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sticking with detectives of one sort of another, I’m cheating a little here as the adventures of Sherlock Holmes aren’t novels (even the four longer stories are more like novellas), they’re short stories. But they’re important to me because they were the first “old” things I read, back when I was about ten. My abiding memory of the first reading (and I don’t remember what story it was) is a disbelief that they were written so long ago – to a child, this was a pretty major stuff. While I still love Sherlock Holmes, the character, these days I’m more interested in new interpretations of the character, as in the Robert Downey Jnr movies or anthologies like Shadows Over Baker Street (which pits Holmes against Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian nasties). See? Back to genre I go…

5. FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club is one of those books that, as a writer, frustrates me intensely. It’s a great book. It’s a wonderful book. But it’s also a book that makes me green with envy. How did he write it? What makes it work? More importantly, what makes it work in the way it does? I only read this recently, although the film has been one of my favourites for nearly ten years now. But the book… it’s short, and the writing appears to be simple, but after each chapter I’d put it down and shake my head and try to understand what was going on between the lines that made it so damn good.

I can’t really explain it. Fight Club has that X-factor, that indefinable something that is going on underneath and around and over and between the text that just activates something in my brain. It’s that X-factor that makes some books a sensation. It’s also that X-factor that, I think, you’ve either got or you haven’t. Woe is me!

Thank you, Adam!

Readers, how about telling Adam about the non-genre novels that YOU think have the X-factor?

Guest Book Review: Andrew from The Pewter Wolf reviews The Iron King by Julie Kagawa

Today your guest reviewer is the truly lovely Andrew who runs The Pewter Wolf. In his own words: This blog is, what I like to call, a HappyBlog or a LaughBlog. The idea of this blog was to express book reviews and short stories I wrote, but have fun, random blogs that (I hope) will put a smile on your face.

You can say this is a book blog that doesn't take itself too seriously. Imagine this as a friend who wants to makes you smile, laugh and get excited over books - good or bad.

Andrew genuinely adores books, which is great to see, and so, for his review I decided to set a challenge. I'll let him explain it...

I want to thank Amanda quickly for allowing me to write this guest review for her lovely blog!

Now, when she asked the world of Twitter if anyone wanted to write a guest review, I jumped at the chance. But then, I had a problem: what to review? After a quick Tweet chat where Amanda asked "What don't you like reading or is out of your comfort-zone?", I immediately thought of faeries.

Now, why don't I like faeries, I hear you ask? Because the first thing that jumps into my head is Tinkerbell from Disney's Peter Pan. They're not edgy like vampires, werewolves or fallen angels. They're cute and fluffy and I can't really see them as dark or dangerous.

After a few more tweets with Amanda, I threw out to Twitter a HUGE list of books (ranging from faeries, books I got from the Indigo launch, a time-slip novel to a few eBooks on my Kindle) - the faeries won and I received more votes to read The Iron King by Julie Kagawa than anything else (it was that or a copy of Wicked Lovely I won!)

So, when I went away to Portugal, I took my glittery hardback copy of the book that I own and I read it over four days straight.

Meghan Chase thinks she is a normal teenager - until her little brother is snatched and replaced by a changling. When this happens she is thrown into a world that she didn't know existed. Now, to save her little brother, she must trust her best friend (who happens to be a faery - a pretty famous faery, actually) and follow them into the faery world of Nevernever. This world, surprisingly, seems to be a place where Meghan can fit in.

Now, I read this on holiday so this is a bit of a relaxing holiday read for me - although it did take a few chapters to get over the idea of "Disney" faeries in my head and see human-sized faeries with a definite dark streak to them. Plus, I really enjoyed the ideas Julie Kagawa used from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and found them incredibly interesting.

There was a feeling of déjà vu about this book with some of the ideas presented. The creature, Grimalkin, is very similar to the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland and you sometimes get the feeling that you have read the story before. But the idea of the Iron Fey was cool and I will be intrigued to know more about this. So, in general, The Iron King was a mix of good and bad.

Now, the teams... Like most YA books, there are Teams where readers can root for the couple and their "Happy Ever After" and Iron King is no expectation - I can see from reading this that there is the beginning of Team Ash and Team Puck. I am sure we will be shown more and more as we read the sequels, The Iron Daughter and The Iron Queen.

While I'm still not a great lover of faeries, I am intrigued to see what happens next in The Iron Daughter and I won't be so afraid to read books about faeries anymore. But I still might keep my distance from them. I need another faery book or two before I get over my "phobia" of faeries.

(On my blog, I put song choices to what I was listening to while I was reading so, I hope, Amanda allows the same. I apologise for the random song choices - "Pocketful of Sunshine" by Natasha Bedingfield & "Full Moon" by The Black Ghosts)

I don't usually include songs, Andrew, but for you here they are! Thanks so much for the review!



Monday, 26 September 2011

Guest Review: Liz from My Favourite Books reviews Fables: 1001 Nights in Snowfall

This afternoon I'm welcoming one of my bessie blogging and real life mates to Floor to Ceiling Books. Liz of My Favourite Books needs absolutely NO introduction. She is one of the pre-eminent bloggers, Twitterers and future authors - I loves her *grin*

And she is here to review Fables: 1001 Nights in Snowfall by Bill Willingham.

This tale is set in the 19th century, in the early days of Fabletown, when Snow White was sent as an envoy to the lands of the Arabian Fables. But the Arabian Fables are actually offended that a woman would be sent to negotiate. When she catches the eye of the sultan, Snow finds herself filling the unenviable role of Scheherazade, the teller of the original One Thousand and One Arabian Nights tales.

Snow has to amuse the Sultan with tales of wonder and imagination every night - for a thousand and one nights - to keep her head off the chopping block. We see the stories as Snow tells them in a framing sequence similar to the original. Running the gamut from horror to dark intrigue to mercurial coming-of-age, it reveals the secret histories of familiar characters through a series of compelling and visually illustrative tales.

This was my first ever Fables graphic novel. Admittedly it was a brave thing to do, to grab it and buy it and read it, having never read any of the other graphic novels in the past, but this one genuinely appealed to me.

It riffed on the original Arabian Nights but with a fairy tale spin. I was initially concerned that I would not understand who the characters are but I plunged in. A helpful “who is who” page easily lets you in on the game, so you get a brief outline as to who the characters are, this was helpful, without being spoilery.

The story consists of ten smaller stories – an anthology, with each story linking to the next, to the next, to the next. I will briefly mention the stories in sequence:

A Most Troublesome Woman

Illustrated by Charles Vess and pencilled by Michael Wm Kaluta this story is the one that sets up the graphic novel, in which Snow White travels to an Arabic country to ask the sultan for his assistance. Fabletown is facing a dark enemy and needs allies. Sadly, for Snow, she finds herself relegated to the side, ignored because she is a woman. The sultan sees all women as nasty creatures, only good for marrying and bedding for a night, before murdering them. Snow devises a plan to get the Sultan on their side, and save her own skin, by telling him a sequence of stories, fulfilling the role of storyteller.

The Fencing Lessons

This is my favourite of all the stories. We learn how Snow and Prince Charming tried living happily ever after. We learn of the godawful things that were done to Snow by the odious dwarfs. And her stunning revenge. A very dark story and beautifully illustrated by John Bolton, this story is very much for adults only.

The Christmas Pies

Reynard tricks the Adversaries’ armies to bake and deliver pies in a clearing. It’s a clever ruse and a proper trickster tale, allowing the captured animals to escape.

A Frog’s Eye View

This one concerns Flycatcher and how things went from him when he became human. It also ramps up the tension and reveals a bit more about the ruthlessness of the Adversary.

The Runt

Oh. Loved this story – beautifully illustrated by Mark Wheatley it tells the story of Big Bad Wolf’s mother and the North Wind and it also tells us a bit more about BBW’s childhood and his bad ways, before he became Bigby Wolf.

A Mother’s Love

A very poingnant and short story illustrated by Derek Kirk Kim it tells how Colonel Thunderfoot is cursed to live as a human (he is a hare) and how he has to live out his days until the love of a female of the harekind can return him from human to hare.


Forms a lead into the next story, The Witch’s Tale. Diaspora focusses on the two sisters, Snow and Rose and Frau Totenkinder (a witch) and...well, you have to read the story. Illustrated by Tara McPherson.

In The Witch’s Tale we see more about Frau Totenkinder and how she’s linked to various other fables and it’s illustrated by Esao Andrews.

What You Wish For

A young girl who has travelled all over the world, wishes to see the sea. She makes a wish and goes to live with the merfolk under the sea, where the Adversary decides to attack next. Illustrated by Brian Bolland.

Fair Division

This is a firm favourite, not just because of the story, which showcases King Cole being magnanimous and caring, but also because of Jill Thompson’s amazing art. She’s managed to keep the art quite adult yet it is reminiscent of the art we’re used to seeing when we grew up. King Cole allows everyone to feast on his food and later, when he passes out from hunger, all his subjects rush around, working as a team, to help him.

The graphic novel ends with Snow leaving the Sultan’s palace alive, and a young beautiful girl called Scheherazade takes her place. Snow however whispers to her that the Sultan seems quite keen on stories.

The graphic novel is a standalone within the Fables series. What the author manages to do is create something that someone like me who loves fairy tales can pick up and read and understand and enjoy, without having any previous knowledge of the existing Fables world. I think that’s genius. What is also incredible is the enthusiasm and detail visible in each page of the graphic novel – from the artwork to the stories to the overall package.

Vertigo has done an amazing job, keeping this series going and Bill Willingham is easily one of my favourite graphic novelists working today. Because of him my own interests in fairy tales has grown even more and my collection of graphic novels, novels, academic non-fiction and research has exploded significantly.

I heartily recommend the series, but if you’re unsure, get 1001 Nights in Snowfall and try it on for size.

Thanks so much, Liz!

Guest Post: Rhys Jones on YA fiction!

Another day, another wonderful guest blog!

This time I welcome Rhys Jones, who is the mastermind behind Thirst for Fiction Rhys is one of those rare and mythical beasts - a teenage boy who loves to read, and blogs all about it. I asked him whether he would be prepared to talk about why YA, and here is his articulate reply...

I should probably start by introducing myself: I'm Rhys, and I'm a 15 year old book lover and blogger. Being one of the few male, teenage bloggers puts me in the position of being the target audience of many a YA/middlegrade writer, and through my blog I am able to express my opinions in the hope that someone will find my thoughts interesting and useful- not least authors whose work I critique.

I can't pretend to have read a great deal of "adult" novels- and the few I have are often by writers I know have written YA novels (Dark Matter by Michelle Paver is a good example)- but there is something that puts me off "adult" novels- a certain amount of cynicism that is really quite uninspiring. I'm sure there are many fantastic books for adults out there- but for me, as a teenager, most hold back, almost frightened to pitch radical and risky ideas. Which is why I like the YA genre so much. It's a place where it seems authors are far less restricted and a freedom of ideas can take place. Combine that with the fact that the characters of YA novels are far easier to relate to for someone my age, and you're onto something special.

Recently, I've become scared of the fact that perhaps, one day, I will no longer be interested in young adult novels. For me, that's a scary thought. I don't want to leave this world of fun novels- and though I know plenty of adults love YA books, I'm not sure how that will bode for me in 10, 20, 30 years time. Much like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, I don't want to grow up, if only for the reason that I find the books I read now so much fun. I'm hoping that my ambition of going into YA publishing will ease that fear.

Unlike most bloggers, I'm not much of a writer, either. My Twitter feed is forever telling me that fellow bloggers and people I follow are writing, and as much as I'd like to be able to write as a hobby, I have neither the stamina nor the time- particularly now, when my blog takes up a lot of my free time. I've been told on numerous occasion that I'm a reasonable writer- and on the one-off event that I do write, what I produce isn't always that bad. YA fiction has affected my writing, if ever so slightly- I now know what works, what has been done, and as a reviewer, I know exactly what I want from a book. Perhaps, one day, that'll all help me craft my own novel- but for now, that knowledge remains largely unused, only on the rarity coming out to critique other people's work.

The fear of losing touch with YA fiction is still with me- but I'm hoping my career path will never shy away too much from reading teenage books. Whether that becomes a reality or not only time will tell- but for now, I'm a happy bunny chomping my way through lots and lots of (often very good) books- books that are daring, radical and a lot of fun.

Thanks *so* much Rhys! Make sure y'all leave him nice comments and definitely check out Thirst for Fiction!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Guest Article: Jonathan Green "On the Stigma of Being a Tie-In Writer"

Some of my favourite novels have been tie-in works. I *adore* the Black Library output particularly. And yet there still seems to be a stigma in reading tie-in fiction and definitely in writing it. Jonathan Green - a pre-eminent tie-in author - has come on my humble blog today to talk up being a tie-in author. Take it away, Jonathan!

On the Stigma of Being a Tie-In Writer

My name is Jonathan Green… and I’m a tie-in writer.

There, I’ve said it. I’ve come clean. Confessed.

I’ve actually been a tie-in writer for over nineteen years. My very first paid writing gig was an adventure gamebook, entitled Spellbreaker, for the Fighting Fantasy range. That particular book fitted into an already existing milieu and made use of pre-existing rules, created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. It was the brand name that sold my book, not my name.

The same is true of my first novel, The Dead and the Damned, which came out in 2002. It was published as part of Black Library’s Warhammer line, which itself drew upon the game world of Game Workshop’s fantasy range of toy soldiers.

It could be argued that thirty-one of the thirty-seven books I’ve written (or am in the process of writing) are tie-in fiction – and that doesn’t include the various short stories or comic strips I’ve written for the likes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And yet as far as many are concerned I am yet to write what they consider to be a Proper Book, because my Warhammer 40,000 novels or my Star Wars books make use of characters and setting invented by somebody else and which are then sold as mass market product.

In 2007 I created the steampunk world of Pax Britannia for Abaddon Books and wrote the first novel in the series, Unnatural History. This was an original work of my own creation. At the time nothing existed in the Pax Britannia universe that I hadn’t put there. And yet because it was marketed as a shared world of pulp adventures, I soon realised that it too carried the stigma of tie-in fiction.

In 2008 my first Doctor Who title was published. This was definitely seen as a step up, as far as friends and family were concerned, but it was still tie-in fiction and hence seen by many as not being a Proper Book.

I have sold hundreds of thousands of books, many titles selling better than some so-called Proper Books. Black Library’s Horus Heresy novels regularly appear in the New York Times Bestseller lists. But the great majority of readers still seem to believe that such works could never be as good as a Proper Book. And yet something which many people forget about, or choose to ignore, is how many Proper Books are set within the real world, and is that not a shared world setting all of its own?

I really do not understand the stigma surrounding franchise fiction. It is so often seen as a stepping stone to something else – something better. It has always been burdened by the preconception that tie-in equals poor quality, even though it is often written by authors who are known, and celebrated, for their own non-franchise work.

Take Michael Moorcock, for example. Last year he had his own Doctor Who novel published which, understandably, received a great deal of attention at the time. Now when fans of his Elric books or Jerry Cornelius stories sat down to read The Coming of the Terraphiles do you think they said to themselves, “Of course this won’t be as good as his other books because it’s tie-in fiction?” I sincerely doubt it.

Or look at it this way. When I sit down to write a Warhammer short story am I putting any less effort into it that I am an original piece of fiction for a Solaris anthology? Do I apply a different set of tools to writing a Doctor Who book compared to a Pax Britannia one? Of course not!

I’m a professional writer and I try to do as professional a job as I can with anything and everything I write, whether it’s a new Gamebook Adventure for Tin Man Games or sample chapters for a pitch for a brand new series of children’s book. I wouldn’t be very professional if I didn’t.

And yet here’s the thing. When it comes to writing comics, franchise fiction is seen by many, looking in from the outside, as the be all and end all. You’re nobody if you haven’t written a Batman book, or a Superman title, or chronicled the latest adventures of the X-Men or Spiderman. You set out as a comics writer contributing, for example, original Future Shocks to 2000AD. Given enough time you might get to create your own strip for the comic. And then, some time after that – if you’re lucky enough – the big boys of DC and Marvel come from across the Pond to knock at your door asking if you’d like to be the new lead writer on the Hulk.

Go figure!

Anyway, enough of my ranting. Now that I’ve finished the rewrites on my latest Doctor Who novel Terrible Lizards I’m off to work on my latest Warhammer 40,000 project.

You can keep up to date with news of Jonathan Green’s latest tie-in fiction projects at or via Twitter @jonathangreen

Guest Book Review: Niall Alexander reviews The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Today I have a grand little guest review by none other than the beloved Speculative Scotsman, Niall Alexander. I am very grateful to him for taking some time out of his super mega busy schedule and providing a review for your delectation. I can assure you, no one writes a review like Niall (in a good way!) so enjoy this and then head on over to his blog and become a follower!

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

Reviewed by Niall Alexander

Another day, another dystopia.

In a village surrounded on all sides by the risen dead and so utterly isolated that the ocean has taken on mythic status, amongst a community of survivors over which the fiercely traditional Sisterhood holds sway, young Mary has lived her entire life with one foot in the grave and her head resolutely in the clouds. "How fragile we are," she muses, "like fish in a glass bowl with darkness pressing in on every side." (p.37) But reality bites, and Mary's bleak reality bites all the harder, for suddenly the time comes to be married off in accordance with the Sisterhood's strictures, and no-one's asked for her hand.

However, such questions - of a loveless marriage, or a life utterly without love, or only the love of a God this misbegotten girl has given up on - such questions as those are soon forgotten when the township that is all Mary has ever known comes under attack, first from within... and then without. Without, where the Unconsecrated roam...

I don't know if it began with The Hunger Games - I doubt it - or if this fascination with the plight of those left behind by the end of the world was only buoyed by the success of Suzanne Collins' game-changing trilogy, but the state of play in YA today is much of a muchness either way: nary a month goes by without the launch of yet another new series with designs on all those readers taken by the Mockingjay's tale.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I think, is not that. I mean, yes, it's a trilogy; yes, there's a love story sewn through it, without which seam the whole quilt would come apart in your hands; and yea, verily, the young protagonists - chief amongst them a girl burdened with responsibilities beyond than her years - spend it fighting for their very lives in a world gone to hell in a hand basket. Par for the course, perhaps. Swap out Collins' contestants (themselves ripped from The Running Man) for zombies, or the Unconsecrated as The Forest of Hands and Teeth has it, and you've pretty much got the gist of this one. Or you would, were it not for Carrie Ryan's incredibly powerful prose.

Now it's not always immaculate. Particularly as the going goes, and we approach an all-or-none conclusion so devastating as to put one once more in mind of The Hunger Games and its bittersweet denouement, particularly then Ryan seems to sacrifice the composure she's shown in order to up the ante, and I would really rather she hadn't. Add to that a heroine who seems to see-saw from one emotional extreme to the other in a matter of minutes, and a love triangle which can seem duly contrived, and perhaps you begin to grasp how roundly style trumps substance in The Forest of Hands and Teeth.

But I can forgive a beautiful wordsmith much, and Carrie Ryan is that, at times. To wit, writers with such admirable aspirations often fall afoul of prose so minutely considered as to seem overwrought - some might say I should know! - yet there is a terrific undercurrent of the unspoken to Ryan's dialogue, while the understated comes naturally to her exposition. Her imagery is often haunting; her lexicon evocative, and absolutely appropriate to the tale, which is to say one of solitude and belief, love and trust.

Imagine if you will The Reapers Are the Angels for readers a touch younger than Alden Bell's audience, with - and why not? - a certain helping of The Hunger Games crowbarred in for good measure, and of course added bullet points in the marketing materials. As such, I would recommended The Forest of Hands and Teeth, but only with the aforementioned reservations. If a lesser author had knocked the same story out, I'd have said to steer clear, yet the larger part of Carrie Ryan's debut works a dark charm as a showcase of a formidable talent on an upwards trajectory - if not as a particularly notable narrative in its own right.

Thanks so much, Niall - definitely a book that I need to get to!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Guest Article: Graham McNeill "A Wee Boy fae Glasgow"

Graham McNeill is one of my very fave authors. This is not just because of his writing, but because Graham is so damn humble in the face of his continuing success. Also, I have nagged him a fair few times over the last two years for blog bits and pieces and the man *always* delivers! Today, he brings us a guest article on the subject of being just a wee boy fae Glasgow...

It’s an ongoing thing with me that I never quite believe my good fortune in doing a job that I love and that I get paid for telling stories of wizards and goblins. Whenever I’m at a signing or convention, I’m always faintly embarrassed (in a good way) that folk want me to scrawl on their brand new book or want to talk to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a bad person to sit next to in the pub, I’ll happily talk your ear off and make you laugh over a pint, but the idea that a person who only knows me through my books wants to talk to me is still really strange. I love it, but still find it odd. Not odd that that these people are coming up to me, but odd in that I know me and I know that I’m just like the person speaking to me!

Because you know what…? I’m a fan of the genre too; I read novels about vampires, zombies, and the hunters of same. I read about starships, space marines, noir-cyber detectives and the like, and am in awe of the folk who write those books. I suppose part of that is the distinctive Scottish character that keeps the gaels of Caledonia from getting too big for their sporrans and makes most of us naturally reticent about shouting about how clever we are from the rooftops :-). I write books, and I’m proud of each and every one of them. I think they’re good stories, with engaging plots and memorable characters, but it’s funny how you always think everyone else is doing a better job than you…

It’s the same with everything else, be it schoolwork, sports, exams, your job, whatever… You always think the other person is doing a better job, and – within reason – that’s probably a good thing for an author, as it’s going to keep you hungry to improve. I see what authors I admire are doing and I want to do things I think are as good. It’s a fine line between the insecurity that drives you to do better and crippling paralysis that stops you from letting another soul see your words. So I think it’s a good thing that the people who come up and speak to me will soon realise I’m a fan like them, and that I enjoy chatting to them and going on long fanboy digressions about the height of a battle titan or how you can strangle an Avatar

Anyone who doesn’t enjoy that is in danger of coming across as arrogant, and it’s never good to believe your own hype. The moment I start behaving like that, I have a close-knit group of friends to drag me back to reality and remind me that I’m just Mrs McNeill’s wee boy fae Glasgow. Thank the Source!

Thank you Graham!

Guest Article: Sam Strong - Why Do Some Books Disappoint?

When I did a call for contributors, Sam agreed to a guest article. He warned that he might rant. I said that was fine. As it is, there is not a lot of ranting, but a considered analysis of why (for Sam) some books fail while others succeed. If you want to read more from Sam, he has a blog.

Sam, with his fiancee Charlotte, at Eastercon

Quick Summary: I'm a real picky bugger. The following is me attempting to dissect why.

It's not often that I read to be challenged. Sometimes I'll read something that a friend thinks I should read for my own good, but for the most part I read to be entertained. Recently it seems that more and more books are falling flat for me. It's not that they're bad books, but I just don't seem to love them as much as everyone else in the world.

I'm afflicted with a fearful awareness of time. Seconds gush past and before you know it the year is half done. And there are a lot of books out there. I'm not the slowest reader in the world, but I'm certainly not the fastest either. Reading a book is a commitment for me and if the book doesn't deliver I'm going to be disappointed.

1. Expectation

My expectations work in two ways. First, there's the hype. Take Boneshaker or Zoo City as examples. Each was hyped to hell and back and both are good books, but in my opinion not entirely deserving the level of praise shovelled at their feet. Was it the hype that caused this? It certainly didn't help. If you're being hailed as the best thing since chorizo met king prawns then you absolutely need to deliver.

Then there's the way a book is presented. If your cover and blurb promise me a slice of stuffed crust and I bite down to find custard instead of cheese that's just not going to work. No one likes a bait and switch. Of course it's all down to individual interpretation, and UK covers tend to tell you very little about the book unless you have some degree of context in the first place e.g. black cover with girl holding fruit = supernatural romance etc. The presentation is designed for people who are already fans of the genre.

2. Prose

There are so many prose-crimes, from poor editing and broken narratives to sloppy sentence structure and ugly timing. I can live with a lot of these to a degree. I can also live with average action, minimal description and even bloated internal monologues, but if the dialogue sucks then the book tends to take a turn for the dire. Nothing drags me out of a book more than stilted interaction between characters.

3. The ending

Assuming I actually make it to the end of a book (which, to be honest, is way more often than not) then there's the ending. In our chosen genre, this is where series syndrome tends to kick in. Now, I'm more than happy for the author to drop a cliff-hanger so long as they've tied up at least 75% of their sub-plots, but so many books, especially the first in their series tend to just stop mid-flow and assume you'll be happy to wait for the next one. That's just not satisfying. The ideal end to a story for me sees the protagonist move beyond what they want and actually achieve what they need. Much like a bag of Revels, the best books make this a complete surprise.

So why do I read in the first place? The obvious answer for a fan of SF and fantasy (perhaps not so much horror) is escapism. Thinking about that, my immediate response is, "Rubbish! I like my life. Why would I want to escape from it?"

I think it's more complex than that. There's more to escapism than escaping. There are also degrees of escape. Books do allow me a window to different locations, times, situations and, most importantly, different mindsets. So yes, I like my mind, but that doesn't mean I don't need to escape from it in order to experience new things. Despite this, I still think the most powerful form of escapism is that which allows us, for a time, to become someone else. It's a power thing and it comes in many forms; strength, intellect, beauty, friends, family, opportunity, love, hate, contentment, safety. The fantastic worlds just make it easier us to believe it.

The best books are those that wrap themselves around us so completely that we get a hangover when we finish them. A hangover so bad that it actually disrupts the first few chapters of the next book we read. They become such a big part of what we think about that they leave a very real hole in our minds when they leave us. My final judgement of a book is whether it achieves this.

Thanks so much Sam! Why don't you guys drop Sam a comment in appreciation, telling him why some books have disappointed YOU?

Friday, 23 September 2011

Guest Book Review: Kylie Grant reviews Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Back in college when I did English Literature I studied The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. As is the case with most study texts such as this we seemed to dissect every word and I ended up disliking the book intensely. Unfortunately that experience has deterred me from picking up any more of Margaret Atwood's work, so I was particularly pleased when Kylie Grant offered me a review of Alias Grace, since I feel my readers are the sort who would like a judgement on whether to read this lady author or not!

Here is Kylie's review:

Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks, an Irish Immigrant convicted at the age of sixteen to life imprisonment for murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress in the early 1800s. At the time the novel begins, Grace has already served many years in prison and also been sectioned in an asylum, for violent and wild behaviour, and it is now up to Dr. Simon Jenkins, on behest of a community group that believe in her innocence, to finally make a decision about Grace’s guilt. Based on a true story, this captivating and disturbing novel depicts life in the nineteenth century, and explores the boundaries of sanity that lie within us all.

Alias Grace is every bit a Margaret Atwood novel. From the elicit detail to the changing narrative perspectives, it very much feels like you know who is pulling you in and unwilling to let you go until the very end. The first chapter is testament to this; a chapter that opens with a dream and ends with the ambiguous word, story, as if nothing about this novel is true, despite its grounding in a real life case. However, it does more than just direct the reader to whether Grace Marks will speak the truth in the novel, it also allows the reader to breathe, to imagine and to let go. Nothing is true, or nothing can be said to be true, judgements are therefore not wanted here; let your imagination do the work. This is why I have grown to love Margaret Atwood, one of the few novelists writing today who is brave enough to minutely detail a story, but in the end let the reader decide for themselves on how it is to be understood.

The novel, through Grace Marks’ perspective, details of the reported trial, and then Dr. Simon Jenkins’s narrative takes the reader through Grace Marks’ childhood, voyage over to Canada, her first experiences of employment as a maid, her close friendship with Mary Whitney (whose name she would use as her alias), her change of employment and life working for Thomas Kinnear, and her relationship with James McDermott, the man who was hung for the crime they were both convicted of committing. It is not a fast paced novel, the period details are thorough, and at times the shifting perspective slows the story down, however, as a reader you grow to enjoy the meticulousness of the narrative, and the depth you feeling you have towards the main characters, and there are also some shocking moments that rival any thriller.

For anyone who likes mystery the novel has plenty of it, the narrative will keep you guessing and Atwood leads you down lots of avenues of thought. In the end though, this book is all about belief. If you believe in the characters enough you will feel intimately connected with them, and willing to journey to the ends of sanity and back to understand them. It is also about Grace’s belief in Simon, can this eager psychiatrist really hold the key to her freedom? And then Simon’s belief in Grace, does he truly believe she is innocent, is he willing to forgo his scientific rationality, or his own belief in sanity? Do we as readers believe Grace Marks’ story, and if not, how far are we willing to be pulled along; just as Atwood is constructing a tale, how much is Grace guilty of it too? All of these questions Atwood carefully constructs and flirts with, as if we are all on trial and must ascertain what really constitutes our own understanding of truth. It is this, if nothing else, that will keep you reading up until that very last page.

Thanks so much, Kylie!

Guest Article: E M Edwards - Shipwrecked!

Today's guest post is brought to you by the inimitable @E_M_Edwards of Twitter fame. He also has a blog - Tales from the Invisible City - which details his progress on the novel he is working on. Enjoy!


Literary castaways, desert island books - novels to cling to when the flood comes and the wave breaks, what books would you choose to be marooned with upon a watery exile?

Each holiday season, it is the tiresome task of book reviewers and regular columnists to ask this question in our national newspapers. All the same, the idea of islands and books have always seemed an intriguing combination. The fact that we treasure the written word to the degree that we would consider books a key to our survival appeals.

Like Prospero, I’ve always valued my library of books (almost) as highly as I do my children. Unless your ebook reader is salt, sand, and fathom proof, I’ve also felt that the real thing was preferable, despite the advantages that a disgraced Duke of Milan might have found in a portable library able to fit in the pocket of his robes.

With a large enough cargo, you might rebuild the foundations of your lost city, erect a tower from which to signal passing freighters, construct a raft to cross the straits, or a sea-wall of literature to hold back the tempest. Tear out precious pages on which to scribe your messages for help. Apply to the legs of albatrosses, seal in old port-bottles, or exchange with merfolk for silver fish-forks.

But what books? Books of islands, books of ships, books of spells and summonings, books of sumptuous excess, herbals, and folios of mouth-watering recipes to remind the beef-and-bread-and-beer starved senses of what has been lost?

And what island? What reef, real or metaphorical, do we consider? Why islands at all? A nice lake nestled in a comfortable valley surely has its virtues. But then Islands are interesting places, exposed on all sides to invasive approach and yet isolated by the very elements which guard their shores. More than any continent, islands can not be generally reached by simply walking there, by following familiar and well-laid out paths. So too the best books. There is an element of chance, of risk, of uncertainty in any journey to these places, on or off the map. Even if we get there, we might might never return. And certainly not unchanged.

Despite their proscribed space, they hold the promise of the exotic and the atavistic. Small enough, and everything exists in a liminal state. Utopias - literally “not-places” - roc’s eggs, cyclops, sirens, dangerous human-animal hybrids, and sorceresses - the island as a literary setting has been a febrile home for imaginative speculation since tales began.

Hardly surprising that we would choose to take our stories back to them, to these mythological nests from where so many have sprung. Unlike novels of the tranquil lido or safe, continental beach, they generally are not of the disposable sort. Books to reread by oil lamps made from the secretions of shell-fish and whose covers are salt-bleached and stained by our tears. They after all, must sustain us when everything else has been lost.

For myself then, I’d choose books about islands, books about people (the former to greet, like meeting like, and the latter to remind me of what I most keenly lack in my new environment), books about clouds, and books about sand. I’d like a large tome detailing all the peculiarities of tropical corals, mostly now extinct, and one about birds and their meaning as auguries as recorded by Cicero in his two volumes of De Divinatione. I’d like a book that could transform reflections into thoughts, and thoughts into dreams, so that at night or during noon-time siestas in the lee of a thousand-year-old wind-bent juniper, I could bathe in cool starlight while regarding the earth from the sky.

A book about constructing wooden boats might be eminently useful, but less so without a good adze, timber and a reader more handy and adept with such construction than myself. I might pack a large photo album entirely of pictures of modern cities, with their titles in Braille, which I could caress with my fingers when my sight began to fail from staring into the bright emptiness of the surf. Though it would instill in me a superstitious dread of the civilizations which raised them, causing me to hide crab-like in the rocks whenever a plane buzzed by overhead or a sail broke the horizon.

I might, having brought them by the trunk-load, construct a maze out of their stacks. Invent a fantastic name for my City of Books, spelled out in pearls and bits of broken shell on the beach to be re-arranged tidally into new and ever mutating permutations. Cut out paper dolls to inhabit it, from pages too waterlogged now to read, pen up silverfish or sand-fleas as cattle behind fences of braided leather ripped from damp spines. Give sunset performances to my imaginary subjects detailing their daily lives and struggles, and declare myself Tyrant. As time passed, I’d occasionally gather up my paper citizens with tender hands, only to savagely tear them to pieces and toss them into the sea suspecting them of fomenting rebellion.

With a conch set to my blistered lips, I’d straddle their small universe, a vengeful colossus. I their creator, and Io! their unmaker as well. I’d sound the horn as the tide drew them towards the breakers and start rebuilding my invisible City out of the sand.

E. M. Edwards is a writer of odd things, who loves books to excess and has brought far too many of them to the not deserted isle of Gavdos

Among the titles he has traveled there with are The Tempest by William Shakespeare, The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz, The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, The Birds and Other Plays by Aristophanes, The Dark Labyrinth by Lawrence Durrell, The Magus by John Fowles, and Caracol Beach by Eliseo Alberto.

Other suggestions for island reading as gleaned from Twitter:

The Alexandria Quartet (Lawrence Durrell); also (Tom) DeLillo's Underworld... The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)…

Moby Dick (Herman Melville), (Seamus) Heaney's Collected Poems, (William) Least-Heat Moon's Prairyerth, the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism…


The Fall (Albert Camus), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy) Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake), (Franz) Kafka’s short stories, (Jorge Luis) Borges’ Collected Fiction, (William Butler) Yeats collected poems, (William) Shakespeare…

Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), Small Gods (Terry Pratchett) and Jingo (also Pratchett) - all Pratchett would have to be there…

Alexandria Quartet (Lawrence Durrell), Aegypt Sequence (John Crowley), Coelestis (Paul Park), Master Mariner (Nicholas Monsarrat) & Dhalgren (Samuel R. Delany)…

The Forgotten Beast of Eld by Patricia McKillip, By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey, and Taming the Forest King by Claudia J. Edwards…


The whole ASOIAF (George R. R. Martin) series for a start, American Gods (Neil Gaiman), Only Forward (Michael Marshall Smith), Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)…

The Harry Potter (and Lord of the Rings sagas, the collected works of the Brontes and Dickens. And the Oxford English Dictionary, to study. :) …

I, Claudius (Robert Graves). The Dispossessed (Ursula K. Le Guin). Gateway. High Rise (Frederik Pohl). The Illustrated Man (Ray Bradbury). Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)…

Many thanks, Eric! Commenters - please give Eric love for his article by suggesting YOUR Shipwrecked titles!